Level 1 – From a Distance

Let your horse know you’re there. Before we get closer and make contact with a herd of horses, it’s best to first slow down a bit our speed (from our busy day) and maybe do some relaxation exercises. It’s important to check our body for any tension and if we notice tight areas, we can do a little shaking practice. We should also pay attention to our posture, it’s best to walk upright with the center of gravity over the hips. Looking down is okay, but leaning forward implies activity and can unintentionally elicit reactions. Consider what your arrival ritual could be, such as placing a chair somewhere as a reminder that it’s horsey time now. Also, be mindful of the season, listen to natural sounds, and enjoy the silence. Just be present and start observing the horses from a distance. A natural flight distance is 300 meters, but since we’re talking (mostly) about domesticated horses, you can come a little closer, but stop, when the first horse signals it saw you (e.g. by turning its ears towards you).

Level 2 – Invitation

Follow the herd rules by mirroring the herd behaviour. Horses in the wild depend on each other for survival, so they need to be able to rely on each other, and that every horse knows what to do and that they are working together, when it matters the most. So, it’s no wonder that following the same rules within their herd is very important in building a relationship with them for us – because if we don’t know or follow the rules, we will become a burden and don’t contribute to the safety of the herd. Therefore, it’s a significant advantage that we follow to herd rules when we approach and that we are also aware of the level of relationship we are at. To actually become part of our horse’s herd we will always have to go through all five levels of the relationship until the horses offer us (hopefully) the herd leadership voluntarily. To do this, we simply need to adjust our behavior and communication to the relationship level we’re at. By doing so, our horse will notice that we understand and follow the herd’s rules.

Level 3 – Becoming Herd

We are now part of the herd and imitate what the horses within the herd do. However, this time, we are not observing or mirroring from a distance but rather as part of the herd. When a horse doesn’t have specific tasks (like us at this level), it aligns itself with what the leading and guiding horses say in terms of danger, retreat, or changing location. A “no” is not acceptable in such group activities. However, saying “no” to a contact request or social interaction is always possible. At this level, you should observe a lot, find out which character the horses have (with the herd stallion’s character being particularly important, as he shapes the ‘group character’), and imitate everything the other experienced horses do.

Level 4 – Daily Tasks

A clear structure is very important for horses. With it, every horse knows which horse has which tasks in which situation, and can rely on this structure to feel safe. If we want to be part of the herd, we must now demonstrate in a peaceful way that we can take on tasks (and later leadership) as well. However, by taking on tasks, we don’t automatically assume leadership responsibility, nor do we become a leader personality. We simply show our horses that we are capable and willing to take on general leadership responsibilities. Taking on tasks is something all adult animals do, so it’s nothing special. This means that when you take on tasks, over time you will be perceived as an experienced, adult animal and be trusted more and more.

Level 5 – The Role of a Leader

The herd stallion always prioritizes the safety and tranquility of his herd, eating and sleeping less if necessary. So, he’s not the dominant alpha – he’s more a servant to the herd, often putting his own needs behind to benefit the group. A task, not every horse even wants to take on. The herd stallion has several tasks within the herd that no other horse has. Contrary to popular belief there are no lead mares in the traditional sense, but there are special mares that occasionally provide impulses for the whole herd or a group. However, no mare has the tasks that the herd stallion has. But if there are only mares in our herd of domesticated horses (or geldings, who were castrated at a younger age), one of them will take on these tasks from the herd stallion.

When we spend a lot of time with our own herd and go through all the levels, our horses might offer us the role of the herd stallion and, unlike other horses, we can then mentor our horse and help it to develop in its character, essentially introducing it to a new – the human world. We can also help our horse to heal its old traumas if it has had negative experiences before and help it to become braver.

When a horse entrusts us with leadership, it is a significant commitment.